It’s easy to see why people would get squeamish at having to say or hear “the n-word” but when the word is summarily stripped out of one of the most enduring pieces of American literature, eye-rolling commences. That is, until one begins to contemplate the situation further, only at this point to you begin to despair that we have become far too stupid to be the guardians of great works.
Twain’s classic novel is written from the viewpoint of an uneducated white boy of the nineteenth century. As such, words appear in the book that may offend our modern sensibilities. What is lost on some is the notion that Twain may have been using nasty words to achieve a certain realism or to make a particular statement. This seems far more likely than Mark Twain having been nothing more than a foul-mouthed racist. Even so, these concepts can be elusive to some.
What Twain may have been up to is actually sort of secondary to this issue though. By insulating ourselves from any objectionable words we also insulate ourselves from much of the darkness that surrounds such words. While it’s understandable that people want to avoid what makes them uncomfortable, we will never get through some of the terrible aspects of our past by ignoring them. The legacy of slavery, and in particular “the n-word”, are at the top of the list of the things that make us sqeamish. I really believe that, as a nation, we have really done very little to deal with some of the ugliest bits of our past. This is not to say that people should go around spouting racism with impunity. What I am saying is that language like this needs to be considered in its context. As one of the people in the segment said: “You can’t really talk about race without talking about the ugly part.” For a nation that has produced some of the world’s most sophisticated pieces of culture, we can still be kind of idiots.